Disney’s Hercules begins with a quintet of Muses singing about the origin of the cosmos and calling this tale “the gospel truth.” The phrase is repeated all throughout the opening anthem — an interesting use of Judeo-Christian jargon, as if hinged on the popular misconception that Greek and Roman myths are akin to ancient religion.
The movie is peppered with similar familiar tropes. As the film progresses, it becomes more apparent how Disney traverses the predictable route. Instead of craftily unknotting the intricacies of the legend of Heracles, Disney dilutes a celebrated story and streamlines it into an easily marketable, family-oriented flick.
Classical myth does not necessarily constitute religion, yet these two concepts are still commonly interlinked. The shared jargon alone (e.g. “gods,” “temples”) makes it easy for people to associate them with each other, rendering religion a convenient template to use when retelling ancient myths.
The Muses’ origin song, for example, re-imagines the Titans as monsters who used to wreak havoc across the earth. Originally the Titans were not necessarily evil creatures. The Titans were some of the first beings to exist, and one of them eventually became the father to Zeus. Disney’s portrayal of the Titans convolves the original timelines and instead paints Zeus as an all-powerful savior, essentially attributing the “taming” of the cosmos to a single being, similar to how Christian theology preaches God as the sole creator of the universe.
Zeus is also portrayed as a doting husband to his wife Hera, and together they have a son Heracles (or Hercules to the Romans). Disney’s reframing of Hercules’ birth story as a product of a happy marriage demonstrates a deliberate decision to veer away from the more complex personas of the original characters: in Greek and Roman myths, Zeus was an adulterous husband and Hera was a vindictive, overly jealous wife.
Similarly, Disney’s Hercules also presents Hades as a bitter god who resents Zeus for making him the guardian of the Underworld. Hades was not the embodiment of evil, contrary to popular comparisons that he was the Lucifer of classical myth. Portraying the ruler of the Underworld as the antithesis to Zeus however provides the necessary motivation for Hades to become the main antagonist of the film instead of Hera who, based on ancient texts, was the real bane to Hercules’ existence.
These departures from the classical version could be viewed as Disney’s way of retelling the Hercules legend so it would appeal not only to the younger demographic, but also to the general audience at large. Though myth is ubiquitous in the modern world (see Nike and Starbucks logos), the study of Greek and Roman myth is still arguably esoteric.
Binaries are common in classical myths, and Christianity also gives heavy emphasis on the dichotomy between good and evil. Disney then highlights this good versus evil divide through Zeus and Hades who are respectively associated with places parallel to Heaven (Mt. Olympus) and Hell (Underworld). Treating the gods as simplified personifications of familiar concepts is therefore not just a way to secure a G rating, but is also a cinematic shorthand for convenient exposition and easily understandable characterization.
Another detail that Disney foregoes is Hercules’ penchant for excessive behavior regarding food, alcohol, and sex. Depicting Hercules as a gluttonous hero with a high sex drive would villainize him, so Disney navigates around this by projecting the imagery of excess to the people’s response to Hercules’ deeds.
Timê, the sense of recognition heroes get from their peers or superiors, is shown through the proliferation of Hercules merchandise. Not only does this paint a palatable image of Hercules, but it also portrays a more familiar experience of hero-worship. Mass production of personality-based merchandise is the modern-day version of adulating gods, which in effect contemporizes another popular misconception that the Greeks worshiped their heroes and gods.
Disney, however, does not always employ major changes to tailor Hercules according to modern taste. Certain principles from ancient Greece are still common to this day, including the practice of telling a story for men, by men. Consequently, female participation in Disney’s Hercules is limited to the Muses and to Hercules’ love interest Megara.
Hera barely speaks in the film, and the Muses are merely vehicles for narration mirroring the role of the chorus in ancient Greek plays. Hercules also demonstrates a level of self-awareness to typical movie tropes, but Megara’s initial feisty personality eventually becomes tokenistic. While there is an attempt to give Megara a back story, she never exercises her own agency without consequences, presumably because doing so may taint Hercules’ machismo. The classical Hercules represents the peak of Greek masculinity — Hercules was a hero helped by female gods, but never by female mortals.
In the end, Hercules dies and becomes immortal, and his kleos — the Greek concept of glory or fame — is implied through a constellation and a black figure pot depicting his deeds. His father Zeus celebrates his heroic acts and bares the movie’s lesson by defining heroism as one that is measured not “by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.” This brand of heroism is another deviation from classical ideals in which being a hero does not necessarily equate to being a good role model.
Ancient Greeks did not celebrate their heroes for their kind hearts and pristine moral values. Greek heroes were instead renowned for the grandness of their deeds and the complexities of their respective narratives. The legendary Hercules has conquered multi-headed monsters, tricked Atlas into carrying back the heavens, and freed the titan Prometheus from captivity — this hero, by all measure, has led a much riveting life than his over-simplified Disney counterpart.
The meat of this post was originally written for an introductory class on Greek and Roman mythology. Revisions were done to modify the tone and to clarify certain mythological concepts and common misconceptions on classical myths.
The featured image was taken from from Poster Spy.